Trade secrets claim are inherently fraught with a startling reality: they have the potential to morph into opportunistic litigation.
What I mean by this is that a party can use a trade secrets lawsuit for a purpose unrelated to the merits. Put another way, the suit can be a means to heap costs on smaller competitors, discourage the development of a competing product or service, or deter perfectly lawful employee recruitment. Trade secrets suits are often fraught with complexity, which means that it's hard for a judge to snuff out bad faith. They also are exceedingly difficult to dismiss early, because they are fact-intensive. These factors, and more, result in a potential toxic brew that can masquerade a plaintiff's bad faith until well into the litigation process.
I have been fortunate (or, from my client's perspective, unfortunate) to have litigated for the defendants a bad-faith trade secrets claim all the way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In Tradesman Int'l, Inc. v. Black, 724 F.3d 1004 (7th Cir. 2003), the Court found under Illinois law that a trial court need not examine a plaintiff's bad faith at the time a lawsuit is filed. Rather, the inquiry is more flexible, and a court is empowered to award fees if it maintains a suit in bad faith. By definition, this requires an ongoing examination of a case to determine if and when a party's bad faith starts.
The Tradesman case is one of a handful of cases - indeed, one of the most important - outside California that examine the notion of bad faith in the specific context of a trade secrets suit. The Uniform Trade Secrets Act, adopted by nearly all states, allows for fee-shifting if a prevailing defendant illustrates bad faith. But relatively few cases reach that stage, and even fewer result in persuasive opinions that practitioners can use for future guidance.
Enter Cypress Semiconductor Corp. v. Maxim Integrated Products, which is surely the most important bad faith case since Tradesman. The case does not establish any new law, as California already has cemented its two-part "objective speciousness/subjective bad faith" test. But the facts of the case, and the Court of Appeal's analysis are powerful and serve to guide lawyers over the bad faith question.
The case arose out of nothing more than Maxim's apparent recruitment (through a headhunter) of Cypress employees - particularly in the area of touchscreen technology. Since California has banned employment non-compete agreements, the broad theory of trade secrets liability ("you're targeting our employees to acquire trade secrets") was dubious out of the gate. Even more problematic for Cypress was California's refusal to adopt the "inevitable disclosure" doctrine - which is broadly used as a justification to enforce non-competes and is more controversially used sometimes as a free-standing claim to bar competition even in the absence of a non-compete.
So, from the start, Cypress' case was in trouble. It veered further off the rails when Maxim demanded a trade secrets identification, which California law requires early in the case. Here's what Cypress disclosed:
(1) A compilation or list of Cypress employees who worked with Cypress's touchscreen technology and products area and their employee information, including contact information.
(2) Cypress's substantive confidential information regarding its proprietary touchscreen technology and high performance products.
Well now. That's seems compelling.
As for category (1), Cypress ran into trouble when Maxim found those same employees - whose identifies were apparently trade secrets, in the Cypress world - on LinkedIn and other social networking sites. Problem.
As for category (2), I am not sure what to say. Identifying your trade secrets as "substantive confidential information" regarding all your products seems a wee-bit circular. Adding adjectives was not all that helpful.
The opinion (embedded below) is replete with an often harsh characterization of what Cypress did with this profoundly silly lawsuit. It supported its bad-faith finding with a wide-ranging criticism of Cypress's improper identification, rank speculation that Maxim even was offering Cypress employees positions on touchscreen technology, and its use of litigation to achieve an improper purpose.
Of greater interest, though, was Cypress's novel defense: since it voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit, Maxim could not be a "prevailing party" under the bad-faith statute. Here, the theory was that Cypress could have refiled the case in the future. Demonstrating a fair amount of arrogance, Cypress contended it was the prevailing party since Maxim voluntarily stopped soliciting Cypress's employees.
The Court of Appeal reached a pragmatic result by rejecting this voluntary dismissal defense. By finding that the plaintiff acted in bad faith, a court will have ensured that the defendant did not achieve some "superficial or illusory success" by virtue of the voluntary dismissal. Put another way, the bad-faith finding is itself a determination that the plaintiff would have lost - badly, in fact. Therefore, there is no real justification for denying fees to a defendant who wins simply because the plaintiff elected to ditch its case in the face of inevitable loss. The Court asked rhetorically "why a party who has made a trade secret claim in bad faith should be permitted to inflict the costs of defense on his or her opponent."
In finding that Maxim was the prevailing party, the Court of Appeal sensibly resolved an issue that trade secrets defendants fear (particularly in state court): the plaintiff's use of expensive litigation to achieve some temporary objective - a standstill agreement to stop competing, piling on of legal fees - only to cut and run after it sends its marketplace message. In these circumstances, a defendant can be left holding the bag with fewer fee-shifting options because it will not have a judgment on the merits.
But as the Court found, the bad-faith finding is tantamount to such a judgment because it serves as a finding that not only was the defendant not liable, but also that the plaintiff knew from the start that it never could be. From a policy perspective, the bad-faith statute has far less teeth if the plaintiff can use the safe-harbor of a voluntary dismissal to avoid even the specter of a fee claim. This is the sort of loophole that should a liberal construction of the bad-faith statute can close.
The issue of bad faith and predatory litigation is one that is not going away, and the Cypress decision serves as a road map for how defendants can fight back against frivolous, anti-competitive claims.